The first satellite built in Montana was destroyed Wednesday (July 26) when the Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missile it was riding on crashed shortly after liftoff in Kazakhstan.
At 100 feet tall and 15 feet across, the Dnepr missile was to carry 18 satellites into orbit. Nearly 200 students, faculty, and members of the public gathered at the Engineering and Physical Sciences building on the campus of Montana State University to cheer the launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome as it was relayed by live video.
However, 13 minutes after the launch, a much-anticipated signal from the rocket had not been received. About two hours later, a space news Website posted a story that the rocket had crashed. Full details of the failure will be announced at Baikonur Thursday (July 27).
The rocket carried MEROPE, Montana EaRth Orbiting Pico-Explorer, which was the culmination of five years of work and waiting by more than 100 MSU students.
“The failure of the Dnepr rocket launch, with the loss of Montana’s first satellite, MEROPE, is bad news, but rocket launches remain a tricky business,” said Bill Hiscock, head of MSU’s physics department. “We have accomplished 95 percent of the satellite’s mission by just getting it to the launch pad; the educational experience for the MSU students designing and building the satellite is not diminished by the failure of the launch vehicle.”
MEROPE was a specific satellite design known as a CubeSat. CubeSats are shaped like a cube 10 centimeters (4 inches) on a side and weigh 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds). They were envisioned as student satellites that could be designed, built, tested and launched in the time it takes a student to earn a four-year undergraduate degree.
Undergraduates from physics, electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, art, business, even geology and microbiology, worked on the project through MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Lab.
Four graduate students managed the project over the years: Brian Larsen, George Hunyadi, Mike Obland and Steve Jepsen. David Klumpar, director of the SSEL, was the project’s mentor. It was a Montana Space Grant Consortium project, which is NASA’s higher education program in Montana.
“Aerospace is headed for a critical need of new blood,” Hiscock said. “The bulge of scientists and engineers inspired by Sputnik I and the space race with the Soviet Union are retiring. Projects like MEROPE are exactly what is needed to inspire and train the next generation of scientists and engineers our country needs”
MEROPE was an entirely student-oriented project, said Brian Larsen, one of the graduate-student managers.
“This was all extra-curricular. Students worked on it because they wanted to,” Larsen said. “We’d have struggling students come in, get excited by the hands-on work and their grades would improve. Students would get really motivated because they could learn in a way they didn’t get in the classroom.”
Over its four-month lifetime, MEROPE was to take measurements of the Van Allen Radiation Belt, a donut shaped band of super-charged particles that can kill astronauts and destroy satellites. The belt’s radiation levels and its shape are constantly changing. MEROPE’s monitoring was to contribute to the understanding of “space weather,” Larsen said.
MSU’s little Rubik-cube-like satellite drew upon a legacy of American and Soviet space exploration. The radiation belt was discovered in 1958 by the United States’ first satellite, Explorer I. Astrophysicist James Van Allen designed the experiment that detected the belt.
Van Allen, now in his early 90s and still working, donated the Geiger tube aboard MEROPE. David Klumpar, the director of MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Lab, did undergraduate research with Van Allen.
Additionally, the Kazakhstan launch site is one of the world’s most famous. It’s where Sputnik I, the first satellite was launched, and it’s where the Soviets launched the first man into space.
Through quirks in the satellite launching business, MEROPE has been waiting nearly two years to get into space. It and 16 other satellites, were hitching a ride with the main payload, a 1650-pound satellite from Belarus. The other satellites were from a Russian technical high school, the universities of Rome and Turin, Japan, Norway and Korea. There were 14 CubeSats in all making the trip, 10 of them built by American university students.
Launch opportunities for university satellites are difficult to find, often leading to years of delay before a project flies, Hiscock said.
Despite the launch failure, “We look forward to continuing student spacecraft projects and seeking launch opportunities for MSU students’ experiments.” he said.